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Mexico: Hold Military to Account on Rights Abuses

Flawed Military Justice System Undermines Security and Antidrug Efforts

(Mexico City) - Mexico is failing to hold members of the military who commit human rights violations accountable, undercutting its efforts to curb drug-related violence and improve public security, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 76-page report, "Uniform Impunity: Mexico's Misuse of Military Justice to Prosecute Abuses in Counternarcotics and Public Security Operations," details 17 cases involving military abuses against more than 70 victims, including several cases from 2007 and 2008. The abuses include killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions. Not one of the military investigations into these crimes has led to a conviction for even a single soldier on human rights violations. The only civilian investigation into any of these cases led to the conviction of four soldiers.

"The need to improve public security in Mexico is clear," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "But, to be effective, any strategy to address security must also deal with the rampant impunity for military abuses committed during public security operations."

The abuses continue because they go unpunished, the report says, in large part because most cases are investigated and prosecuted by the military itself through a system that lacks basic safeguards to ensure independence and impartiality.

Among the problems with the military justice system are that the secretary of defense wields both executive and judicial power over the armed forces, military judges have little job security and may reasonably fear that they will be removed if they adopt decisions that the secretary dislikes, civilian review of military court decisions is very limited, and there is virtually no public scrutiny of military investigations and trials. 

As a result, the report says, the Mexican military court system is failing miserably to provide justice in cases involving military abuses against civilians. In a May 2007 case, for example, soldiers detained eight people after a shootout between the military and alleged drug traffickers. Soldiers took the detainees, none of whom were involved in the shootout, to military installations, where the soldiers beat and kicked four of them, placing their heads in black bags, and forcing them to lie on the floor blindfolded. A federal prosecutor requested that the military investigate the soldiers.  The military closed its criminal investigation in a month and sent it to the archives, arguing there was no evidence that the soldiers had committed a crime.

In another example from August 2007, five soldiers detained a man, held him incommunicado in military installations for over 24 hours, beat and kicked him, placed a cloth bag on his head, tied his arms and feet, poured water on his face while they hit his abdomen, and applied electric shocks to his stomach. A federal prosecutor requested that a military prosecutor investigate the case. Despite the existence of medical exams documenting the torture, the military closed its investigation, determining it did not find evidence that the soldiers had committed a crime.

The report notes that Human Rights Watch asked senior Ministry of Defense officials in January 2009 for examples of serious human rights violations prosecuted by the military that resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of military personnel. The officials responded that there had been many such cases, but were only able to recall one case, from 1998. Despite repeated requests from Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Defense has failed to provide a list of such cases and a copy of the decision in the 1998 case.

The military invokes the Code of Military Justice, which grants jurisdiction to military courts when military officers commit common crimes while "in service," and a strained constitutional interpretation to justify exerting jurisdiction over the abuse cases, the report says. Civilian prosecutors have generally backed off when the military seeks jurisdiction over a case.

But this outcome is not prescribed by Mexico's Constitution, which allows for military jurisdiction only for "crimes and faults against military discipline." It is also inconsistent with a recent binding Supreme Court decision, which defined military "service" as "performing the inherent activities of the position that [he or she] is carrying out." While the court did not explicitly state that all military abuses against civilians should be sent to civilian prosecutors and courts, serious abuses such as rape and torture clearly cannot be considered "inherent activities" of the military. The military's practice is also inconsistent with international standards requiring effective, independent investigation and prosecution of abuses.

"Mexico has failed to take the issue of military abuses seriously," said Vivanco. "Until it does, its stated commitment to the rule of law means very little."

A Human Rights Watch delegation led by Executive Director Kenneth Roth presented the report's findings this week to several members of President Calderón's cabinet, including the interior minister, the federal attorney general, and the military attorney general. Human Rights Watch urged the Calderón administration to ensure that serious military abuses against civilians are prosecuted by civilian officials in civilian courts.

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